- In 1985, a road opened through the Kichwa community of Sinchiruco, in the northern Ecuadorian Amazon. With it came the Guanta 1 oil platform, which would lead to repeated complaints of human and environmental rights violations.
- Until 1990, Guanta 1 was operated by Texaco. Texaco and the companies that came later have been accused of oil and diesel spills, creating crude oil pools, and accidents that led to the death of a child and the loss of one girl’s sight.
- The platform was later managed by Petroamazonas and PDVSA. Now run by Petroecuador, the surrounding communities are still demanding compensation for previous spills and repairs to partially fixed pipelines that, they claim, continue to cause spills. After 37 years, the community is saying that enough is enough.
“My son was covered in burns, poor boy – he just died,” says María Grefa, a Kichwa from Sinchiurco, a community in the northern Ecuadorian Amazon. The tragedy took place in the 1990s, when the eight-year-old was playing with other children. They decided to climb the Guanta 1 oil platform transformer while his parents were working the fields. Petroecuador, which took over the concession from Texaco in 1990, fenced off the platform after the boy died from burns. “At that time we didn’t know what rights we had, how to file a complaint, we had no idea,” says Carlos Alvarado, the boy’s father. “We didn’t do a thing,” adds the boy’s mother, while together they look out from the second-floor window of their house towards the flare, located just 30 meters away.
Around 400 people live in Sinchiurco, which means ‘big hill’ in Kichwa; it is also known by the official name Voluntad de Dios (God’s Will) after being recognized as a community. The territory is located between Lago Agrio and Coca, two of the largest cities in the region, and shares its lands with Guanta Block 57 field, which was imposed on the community by the Ecuadorian State in 1985 when Texaco arrived to drill its first well. Now, anyone entering Sinchiurco is welcomed by a sign pointed in the direction of the field and a Petroecuador guard registers visitors, even though the road is public.
Before reaching the community’s center and even before reaching the Guanta 1 platform, visitors are greeted by a pool of water and oil. Located on the left side of the road and at the entrance to the Guanta 8 well, the pool is testament to the claim made by Carlos Alvarado, María Grefa’s husband, that “Sinchiurco is coated with oil”. Although the spill that created the pool took place some 20 years ago, the area is still fenced off with yellow tape that reads “danger”. A team from Mongabay Latam and La Barra Espaciadora, an online Spanish-language magazine, traveled to the site to learn firsthand about the decades-long allegations of pollution, fatal accidents due to negligence, impunity and general neglect that have been made against local and state officials. After the last spill, on November 10, 2021, the community finally said, “enough is enough”.
This story, which is part of the series #ManchadosXElPetróleo (stained by oil), reports on the impact of oil activity in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Worryingly, despite cases like that of Sinchiurco, when our journalistic alliance began to gather information on fines imposed on oil companies in this part of Ecuador, the Ministry of Environment and Ecological Transition (MAATE) provided a list of 1,200 oil spills since 2011. The names of the companies behind these spills and the fines imposed on them were, however, kept confidential.
But the locations supplied did allow us to put together a map showing that at least 63 of a total 65 oil blocks overlap with 480 (of 643) Indigenous territories. The data was cross-referenced by the journalistic alliance based on information up to 2021 compiled by the Amazonian Network of Geo-referenced Socio-Environmental Information (RAISG) and, more specifically, by Ecociencia, an environmental organization that forms part of RAISG. Sinchiurco is one of the affected communities, and experience shows that behind these overlaps there are usually hidden socio-environmental conflicts that have not been fully addressed by the state. Petroecuador also leads the list of overlaps in the country’s Amazon region.
They arrived like they owned the place, as if these were uninhabited territories
The Sinchiurco Kichwas claim that no-one asked if they would agree to oil extraction in their territory. “We knew nothing about oil wells. Nobody knew about the community, nothing about oil,” says Carlos Alvarado. This was in the mid-1980s, 23 years before the current legislation that requires the state to consult Indigenous peoples and nations about activities affecting their territory. All they knew, says María Grefa, was that a road was going to be built that would allow them to sell their agricultural products and access services more easily. So, they moved their homes closer to where the new road would be. “Then they built a flare, they came with their machines, they drilled, they drew out the oil,” says the mother of seven adult children, her voiced tinged with an audible sadness.
Block 57 contains some of the oldest oilfields in the Ecuadorian Amazon. They were opened 50 years ago, says Pablo Fajardo, a lawyer with the Union of People Affected by Chevron-Texaco (UDAPT). One of them, Dureno, which is located next to the Guanta field, is on the Ai’Cofán nation’s territory. “As a joke, the Cofán say that this well was negotiated with a plate of rice and three spoons (by Texaco),” says Alexandra Almeida, who is responsible for oil-related matters at the environmental organization Acción Ecológica.
Years later, in 1985, the same company arrived in Sinchiurco. At that point, the front part of Carlos Alvarado and María Grefa’s property was taken from them, the couple says, and part of the Guanta 1 well facilities were built on their land. Soon, say Alvarado and Grefa, gases and soot from the flare, which burns with an intense orange flame, began to pollute the air, along with their water reserves and sources. Children and animals, who had to get used to living among oil platforms, were victims of fatal accidents. On top of this was the irritating noise caused by the engines, to which the Kichwa attribute constant headaches. This noise is an endless and persistent part of the surroundings, as the journalistic team was able to verify during our visit. The landscape also began to transform over the years and gradually accumulated greasy oil slicks. That was 37 years ago.
In February 2008, the nightmare got worse. As former President Rafael Correa came to power in January of that same year, three new platforms became operational: Guanta 6, 9 and 15, along with the handover of Guanta Field operations from Petroecuador to PDVSA. Sinchiurco residents claim that, once again, they were not consulted. To mark the inauguration of the new platforms, the president decided to visit the site and the military tried to remove the Kichwa inhabitants from the surrounding area. The villagers refused, and in turn welcomed the official delegation with signs that read: “We are rich in culture, but poor in wealth”. While an event was taking place on the other side of the Guanta 1 platform fence, the community members were watching from the outside. Correa, who in his early years used to speak of inclusion and social equality, invited them in. “The president said, ‘Why don’t you let the community members in first?’” recalls Carlos Alvarado.
“They (the Kichwas) are our leaders, the owners of this rig, of this oil, of this land,” said the former president, according to a report by AFP. But as the years have gone by and oil activity has grown, Sinchiurco inhabitants complain that nothing has changed. They still do not have drinking water or a health center with staff, equipment and medical supplies, and claim that instead they have to live with pollution, crop and animal losses, and chronic diseases. There is nowhere to finish high school and no job opportunities. Most focus on banana, peanut, cocoa, coffee and corn crops, with only 13 men employed on the platforms, claims Cenaida Alvarado, the community’s president.
Sixty-one percent of the Ecuadorian Amazon is under oil concession, with 7,143,845 hectares of oil blocks. Meanwhile, the peoples and nations of this region hold a territory of 8,046,394 hectares. Sixty-three percent, or 5,069,228 hectares, of these territories are under concession for extractive activity. In addition, the oil blocks overlap with 50,053 hectares of the Cuyabeno Fauna Production Reserve and the Yasuní National Park, both intangible zones inhabited by the Tageri and Taromenane, Indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation.
The community reflects what the statistics say about the precarity and lack of access to basic services in the Ecuadorian Amazon. While the region produces oil and minerals, 88.6% of its inhabitants live in poverty or extreme poverty, according to the indicators set out by the National Institute of Statistics and Census (INEC). According to the INEC definition as of December 2021, a person is considered as living in poverty if they have a per capita family income of less than $85.60 per month, and living in extreme poverty if they earn less than $48.24 per month.
“Sinchiurco is coated with oil”
In Block 57, where the Guanta field is located, there were 333 spills between 2012 and May 2021, the largest number nationwide, according to Ministry of Environment and Ecological Transition (MAATE) data published by Ecuavisa. MAATE did not respond to our requests for information regarding the environmental impact in Sinchiurco, nor regarding Petroecuador’s spills over the last 10 years. “The first spill was around here,” says Carlos Alvarado, gesturing outside his home, “and over there they had spillages, too. The Sinchiurco community territory is coated with oil,” claims Alvarado, a thin, dark-skinned man who, he says, has lost almost all of his sight because of genetics.
Texaco also created at least 1,000 pools of hydrocarbon waste in the northern Ecuadorian Amazon during its operations between 1964 and 1990, according to information published online by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Wild and domestic animals became trapped in these chemical lagoons. But the companies also burned the pools to prevent the crude oil from entering water sources. “A black, black smoke would come off it,” says María Grefa frowning. Several pools in Sinchiurco were merely covered with dirt. While the vegetation did its part to hide the damage, the community members are all too familiar with these toxic swamps.
On November 10, 2021 there was a new spill. Between then and December 5, the oil polluted some 11,969 m2 – an area slightly smaller than two soccer fields – according to information from the precautionary measures request filed by Petroecuador a day later. Alexandra Almeida of Acción Ecológica explains that a four-inch pipe in the Guanta 6 well, at a depth of one and a half meters, ruptured due to lack of maintenance. A MAATE report on the spill published on December 3, 2021, claims that the cause was “pitting”, a type of extremely localized corrosion. The oil was building up for an unknown period of time until it overflowed into the marsh. “They (the oil workers) must have known that something was going on. They monitor the valves that detect drops in pressure, they have to detect that, but they didn’t,” says Almeida. That morning, community members woke up to the unmistakable smell of oil and went to the platform to report it.
Petroecuador collected the oil in eight tanks, claims Almeida. Neither the community members nor the experts we consulted were able to confirm the capacity of these containers, and Petroecuador did not respond to requests for information. However, if the tanks used were 100-barrel tanks, the average capacity of such tank cars, some 800 barrels of oil may have been collected. “Three barrels of oil were spilled, as outlined in the emergency plan,” MAATE told us, following a request for information. Days later, company workers repaired the pipe. “They cleaned up the area around the spill site, but 14 days after the spill we carried out an inspection and the marsh was still as it had been, with all the crude oil still present,” says Almeida of Acción Ecológica.
The swamp is the source of a stream that flows into the Sindiyaku River, which now supplies not only water to the communities of El Triunfo, 28 de Julio and Cofán Dureno, but also hydrocarbons. About 1,000 meters of primary forest were also polluted and the oil spread along the road that crosses the community, which directly affected five families, according to the community president. Nancy Avilés is one of those affected, as her house is located at the spill site. She claims that most of her land was damaged. Petroecuador has felled at least 80 banana trees to remove oil from the soil with the help of backhoes. Avilés calculates that so far she has lost $400 worth of bananas.
Without a daily livelihood, the first victims of the pollution were four of her five dogs and several chickens. But soon, she, her husband and their children began to suffer from stomach aches, headaches and general malaise. “I’m still sick,” she says drowsily four months after the disaster. “My whole body hurts, my bones ache, I’m burning up, I can’t sleep at night.” Several of her children have not been able to study as before due to constant discomfort, and Nancy has had trouble paying rent and affording food for her children, who attend high school in Lago Agrio.
“They have tried to manipulate and humiliate us. We have said enough is enough, no more. We demand the right to live well.”
– Cenaida Alvarado, President of the Kichwa community of Sinchiurco.
But this is not the first time that Avilés, a banana grower, has directly suffered at the hands of negligent oil extraction. Looking out over her plantation, ravaged by oil and backhoes, she remembers how some 20 years ago, one of her daughters, who was then aged just one year and a half, stepped on a high-voltage cable that company workers had left rolled up on the ground. A spark flew into her eye, which began to bleed and left her screaming in pain. With the help of some neighbors, they took the little girl to the hospital and, months later, the Carmelite Mission supported the family so the girl could be treated at the Baca Ortiz Pediatric Hospital. At the same time, her husband had a fishing accident, and she was pregnant again, so they could no longer continue with the treatment. “We couldn’t go any further. We had no way to pay for the treatment. We were borrowing just to be able to survive back then, and Petro did not acknowledge what had happened,” she says. The girl lost the sight in her left eye but, in spite of this, she is now studying environmental engineering at the Universidad Estatal Amazónica in Lago Agrio.
The oil also reached Bethy Huatatoca’s house, 500 meters from where the spill occurred. The Kichwa villager says that her chickens, dogs and pigs also died from drinking contaminated water – and those that survived are no longer suitable for eating. “Their meat is black,” says Huatatoca, with a baby in her arms. Since the spill, the little girl has had welts on her skin. Her family claims she has also been suffering from dizziness, constant headaches and fungal infections. The oil has also contaminated the well where the family used to get water. Where the well used to be, there is now a pool surrounded by yellow tape that reads “danger”.
Is the perpetrator accusing the victim?
Community members demanded that the company provide them with clean water and repairs, as well as requesting it to decontaminate the area and compensate the affected families immediately. However, there is still oil in the marsh; it floats in the stream when the soil is disturbed, and none of the families have been able to recover lost resources or the money spent on healthcare, they claim. In addition, the first tankers reportedly arrived with dirty water, says Pablo Fajardo, who is representing the community in the lawsuit. Sinchiurco also requested that local labor be hired for the cleanup work, but they say that Petroecuador told them it does not have the budget for this.
The lawyer filed a complaint with the Public Prosecutor’s Office in order to obtain information about the damage before the site was tampered with by the company. But “the Prosecutor’s Office did not act diligently,” claims the lawyer. In other words, he says, they did not carry out an assessment of the affected area nor did they request information from Petroecuador on the causes and consequences of the spill.
For this reason, the Indigenous residents chose to make use of the right to resistance. This right is protected by article 98 of the Constitution and reads: “Individuals and communities shall be able to exercise the right to resist deeds or omissions by the public sector or natural persons or non-state legal entities that undermine or can undermine their constitutional rights…”. The oil company’s response was to file a constitutional action for precautionary measures on December 6. “Petroecuador has shamefully accused the community of causing harm to the natural environment, and of causing environmental pollution. Their theory is that the community caused the damage to spread further,” says Fajardo.
Two days later, Petroecuador’s precautionary measures were accepted, meaning that the company could continue with the cleanup under the observation of law enforcement. “If community members protested that the company was doing a poor job, they were at risk of arrest. That is another stronger and more serious threat,” Fajardo says. Fajardo requested that the precautionary measures be revoked in order to ensure not only environmental rights, but also those of local residents. The document was sent on to Petroecuador rather than the courts summoning the two parties to a hearing, claims Fajardo. In response, the company defended its initial request and asked that the precautionary measures not be revoked.
The lawyer, who is also lead counsel for plaintiffs in the Chevron-Texaco case, is working on other ways to get the precautionary measures revoked or expanded. He is insistent that the claim against Petroecuador will continue until a ruling is ordered requiring the company to thoroughly repair the damage and to compensate the community.
MAATE began “legal proceedings due to the spill, through the Sucumbíos Zonal 9 Directorate”, according to information sent by MAATE’s communications department.
Meanwhile, the Sinchiurco territory is still polluted four months after the last spill, following 37 years of contamination. “It’s good that the platforms are there, it’s what we live off,” says Cenaida Alvarado, the community’s president, who also lives near the Guanta 1 platform. The problem is that regulation is not always complied with. “There is constant pollution, there are constant spills,” adds the 29-year-old leader. Alvarado, a woman, was elected as president of the community on December 1, 2021. The hope is that, as a woman who does not share the local men’s fears of not being hired by the oil company, she will lead the fight to seek reparation and justice. Alvarado, a mother of two, says: “They tried to manipulate and humiliate us. We have said enough is enough, no more. We demand the right to live well.”
Banner image: The blackened earth shows where banana trees used to be, with which Nancy Avilés supported her family. Image by Ana Cristina Alvarado.